The greatest challenge that Turkey-U.S. relations face is not the problem of Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system but rather Washington’s support for the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian wing the YPG, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated.
Speaking to Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview during the Sea Wolf (Deniz Kurdu) military exercise in Muğla province's Marmaris, Akar underlined the importance of bilateral relations between Turkey and the U.S.
“There are several relations between Turkey and the U.S. – the strategic partnership, alliance, NATO, bilateral relations, the Middle East, North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus and the Balkans,” he stated.
While the problems put forth by Washington can be solved, Akar stressed that it won't necessarily be easy to do so.
“The PKK is getting at our people and unity while the YPG is no different from the PKK. (Washington) sends trucks and planes loaded with arms to the YPG and cooperates with them. Stubbornly and insistently they say YPG and not PKK,” he added, saying that Turkey does not accept this. “We say that this is an insult to our minds.”
Akar reiterated that Turkey is decisive in fighting the PKK and its affiliates.
The PKK is a designated terrorist organization in the U.S., Turkey and the European Union, and Washington's support for its Syrian affiliate has been a major strain on bilateral relations with Ankara.
The U.S. primarily partnered with the YPG in northeastern Syria in its fight against the Daesh terrorist group. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposed the YPG's presence in northern Syria. Ankara has long objected to the U.S.' support for the YPG, a group that poses a threat to Turkey and that terrorizes local people, destroying their homes and forcing them to flee.
Under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the U.S. has provided military training and given truckloads of military support to the YPG, despite its NATO ally's security concerns. Underlining that one cannot support one terrorist group to defeat another, Turkey conducted its own counterterrorism operations, over the course of which it has managed to remove a significant number of terrorists from the region.
Furthermore, local people living in areas held by the YPG have also long suffered from its atrocities, as the terrorist organization has a notorious record of human rights abuses including kidnappings, recruitment of child soldiers, torture, ethnic cleansing and forced displacement in Syria. The YPG has forced young people from areas under its control to join its forces within its "compulsory conscription."
Speaking on the terrorist group’s oppression of locals, Akar said: “The PKK and its affiliates go to Arab villages in the region and rape women, forcefully throw out people from their homes, kill and massacre them and forcefully recruit others. It is known what they are doing to the innocent people there.”
Resentment against YPG rule has grown in north and eastern Syria among the predominately Arab population.
The YPG recently opened fire on local protesters, killing at least eight individuals in Syria’s Manbij. People in Manbij, where Arabs make up 90% of the population, have been protesting the forced recruitment of their children.
The terrorist group seeks to recruit civilians for terrorist activities from areas under their control, including Ain al-Arab (Kobani), Qamishli, al-Malikiyah, Darbasiyah, Hassakeh, Raqqa, Deir el-Zour and Manbij.
While the U.S. expressed concern over the surge of violence in Manbij, Germany has demanded an investigation over the recent incidents.
Apart from fighting the PKK and its wings in Syria and in domestic operations, Turkey is also hitting terrorist targets in northern Iraq, known as the location of many PKK terrorist hideouts and bases from where they carry out attacks in Turkey.
The Turkish military regularly conducts cross-border operations in northern Iraq. Turkey has long been stressing that it will not tolerate terrorist threats posed against its national security and has called on Iraqi officials to take the necessary steps to eliminate the terrorist group. Ankara previously noted that if the expected steps were not taken, it would not shy from targeting terrorist threats.
Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also previously called the PKK's presence in Sinjar unacceptable and urged the militants to leave the area.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched a large-scale military operation against terrorists in the region on April 23.
Turkey in April launched a large-scale military operation against terrorists in northern Iraq, hitting targets in the Metina, Avashin-Basyan, Zap and Qandil regions and a new similar initiative is expected to target another major PKK base in Sinjar.
Responding to this possibility, Akar said, “We continue our preparations.”
“The Baghdad administration says they will clear the region, take precautions and shape the Iraqi provinces of Sinjar and Mahmur. And we say okay. But we also say that they must not allow the region to become a new Qandil,” he stated.
The PKK managed to establish a foothold in Iraq, particularly in the Sinjar region in mid-2014, on the pretext of protecting the local Yazidi community from Daesh terrorists. Since then, the PKK has reportedly established a new command base in Sinjar to carry out logistical activities.
Akar also reminded that Baghdad and Erbil struck an agreement to tackle the issue. “We want this agreement to be applied in a quick and complete manner,” he emphasized.
He elaborated that Mahmur, on the other side, is not a camp for migrants anymore but rather a place providing recruits for the PKK.
On Oct. 9, 2020, Iraq announced it reached a "historic deal" with the KRG, an agreement that would bolster Iraqi federal authority in Sinjar under the constitution in terms of governance and security.
Following the deal, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it hoped the agreement would be carried out in a way that enables the reinstatement of Iraqi authorities' control in Sinjar, the eradication of the Daesh and PKK terrorist organizations and their extensions from the region and ensure the safe return of Yazidis and the region's other people who have been subject to grave oppression and persecution – first at the hands of Daesh and then by the PKK.
Akar also stated that the terrorist organization is struggling in the face of Turkey’s successful counterterrorism operations. He reiterated that Turkey’s efforts will not stop until the last terrorist is eliminated.
“All operations that we conducted until today, were carried out in a manner that respects the territorial integrity of our neighbors, including Iraq, in accordance with international law, within the scope of our right to self-defense and targeting solely terrorist elements in the region,” he pointed out.
“Baghdad and Erbil also have understood this, and our coordination with them continues.”
Akar continued: "With this understanding, we have carried out, and we continue to carry out, successful operations in the north of Syria and Iraq. We have dealt significant blows to terrorists, hindered the formation of a terrorist corridor that was attempting to be established in the south of our country and provided the safety of our borders."
He also stated that the terrorist group’s increasing makeshift drone attacks are a result of its struggle to stay alive.
“The terrorist organization has been driven into a corner. Their so-called leaders who know this reality try to hinder dissolution and retain lower-ranking members by saying ‘We have discovered new arms, we construct makeshift drones,’” Akar said, highlighting that the military has taken the necessary precautions while creating technical delegations that examine the makeshift drones.
Further, Akar also spoke on cooperation with the U.S. in Afghanistan.
“We are in talks with the U.S. We aim to stay in Afghanistan depending on the new conditions,” he said, elaborating that these conditions include financial, logistical and political support.
“If these are provided, Turkey can stay at the Hamid Karzai Airport," he said. Akar added that Turkey is still waiting for answers.
Akar also underlined that Ankara is determined to ensure peace in the country, pointing to the historical ties between the two countries. “We want to be able to stay in Afghanistan and help as long as the Afghan people want.”
At the request of the U.S., Turkey pledged to host a high-level international peace conference on Afghanistan in April, but the Taliban declined to attend, forcing Ankara to postpone it.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also recently pointed to continuing efforts for Afghanistan in coordination with Washington.
On the other hand, relations between Turkey and the U.S. once again reached a new low over U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to call the events of 1915 "genocide" in April.
Akar stated that progress on the situation must continue “because they will bring it up again next year. We have to discuss this. There is information in the U.S.’ archives.”
The defense minister stated that Lt. Gen. James Guthrie Harbord came to Turkey in 1919, did 58 days of research and concluded that no genocide took place and that both two sides suffered significant losses.
Turkey's position on the 1915 events is that the death of Armenians in eastern Anatolia took place when some sided with invading Russians and revolted against Ottoman forces. A subsequent relocation of Armenians resulted in numerous casualties, added to by massacres from militaries and militia groups of both sides. The mass arrests of prominent Ottoman Armenian politicians, intellectuals and other community members suspected of links with separatist groups, harboring nationalist sentiments and being hostile to the Ottoman rule occurred in the then-capital Istanbul on April 24, 1915, which is commemorated as the beginning of later atrocities.
Turkey objects to the presentation of the incidents as "genocide" and describes the 1915 events as a tragedy in which both sides suffered casualties.
Ankara has repeatedly proposed the creation of a joint commission of historians from Turkey and Armenia plus international experts to tackle the issue.
Responding to Greece’s claims that Turkey is following an expansionist policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, Akar said that Athens itself is expansionist. Those who do not believe it can look at the Greek map from 1821 to today, he said
One of the greatest sources of contention between the two NATO allies is a disagreement over rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the extent of air and maritime boundaries in the Aegean Sea and the future of the divided of Cyprus. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots have ruled out discussing a federal system to reunify the island and insist that a two-state accord is the only way forward.
On the Cyprus issue, Akar reiterated that there is no other solution than a two-state solution.
Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by European Union members Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Both sides cite a range of decades-old treaties and international agreements to support their conflicting territorial claims.
Akar underlined that normalization steps with Egypt will be reflected in military ties between the two countries.
“I believe relations will develop,” he said.
Turkey is attempting to normalize diplomatic relations with Egypt that deteriorated following the Arab Spring. Earlier this year, Turkey said it had resumed diplomatic contact with Egypt and that Turkey wants to improve their cooperation after years of tensions that began with the disruption of relations in 2013.
Relations between Turkey and Egypt deteriorated after Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi toppled the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in a coup after only a year in office. Ankara has maintained its position that a democratically elected president cannot be deposed by a military coup and thus, has voiced its criticism of el-Sissi and his backers, including the West and some of Ankara’s rivals in the Gulf region. The Egyptian government, on the other hand, urged Turkey not to intervene in an issue that it considers an internal affair. The dispute led to a deadlock in bilateral relations for many years.
Recently, however, signs of a possible reconciliation have come from both countries, particularly due to the changing dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turkey-Greece crisis over the region’s energy resources. The two countries exchanged positive signals that pointed to establishing contact and dialogue, including the possibility of holding talks to demarcate their maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean.
He also added that coordination with Egypt and other regional countries is in place to contribute to the stability of Libya.
Akar reiterated that Libya belongs to the Libyans and that Ankara’s support toward Tripoli will continue. He pointed out that Turkish security forces provide military training, improvised explosive device clearing and humanitarian and health support as well as military consultation support.
Speaking on putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s recent military ceremony, Akar said that a large amount of military equipment was distributed there. “This is an open indication of Haftar’s effort to try to preserve his presence and shows that the problem in Libya is rooted in Haftar and his supporters." He indicated that the international community should question the origins of this military equipment.
Akar further indicated that the Turkish military’s Sea Wolf exercise again shows the TSK’s power. He also said that getting into an arms race with Greece would cause the greatest damage to the well-being of their own people, and this will be also to their detriment.
“We believe that problems in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus must be solved through dialogue, and we put forward efforts toward this. We are on the side of good neighborly relations and international law. However, we will not let our rights be usurped.”